I spend the day tightening my fingers in the Greek way, in the Hipponax manner, putting my hands where they don’t belong, probing the guts of birds, nattering about the future. I am so tired. My nation has fallen on evil times. All my dark skinned brothers and sisters are exhausted. My crippled pals feel despair. A fingernail in the crow’s guts tells me there will be more fear. I trace a bilious organ of crow-ish appetite, read in Bird Braille there will be megalomania, corporate disdain, wars. Put your hand where it doesn’t belong. It’s a book you should know.
The image on the left above is a sketch by Afred Jarry of Ubu Roi. The book cover on the right is from Maurice Marc LaBelle’s excellent study of the Theater of the Absurd. As a poet who happens to have a disability (this, in the vein of: as a writer who has green eyes, since its both a differentiating feature, and, simultaneously of little provenance, save there are some who think witches are most likely to have green eyes…a dilemma for some of us…) ahem, yes, as a poet with a disability I always bounce off the frontal carapace of Ubu-ableism, (you have to hand it to me, that was a strikingly coagulated sentence.)
Ubu-ableism differs from your run of the mill ableism. The latter is simple. It says, “there are places for these people.” ROM ableism is nothing more than rehabilitation sequestration. It survives everywhere, from the University of Iowa where the office of disability services is hidden in the basement of a dormitory and can only be reached by elevator. Or at Syracuse University where the office of disability services is on the top floor of a building and can only be reached by elevator. In the event of fire you must imagine there will be especially competent emergency personnel who are remarkably trained, who will especially save you, if you’re one of those disabled people, who only wanted to arrange some extra time to take a printed test. And now you’re in an emergency where you can’t roll out the door. Imagine. In any event, ROM ableism is essentially institutional thinking. Certainly the real estate is cheaper in the basement or on the top floor of an underutilized building. Come on, you wouldn’t want to put disability services smack dab in the center of your campus. People might see. They might think you don’t have a good school. I’m not wrong to say this. If you believe in your university and believe that students with disabilities are a source of excellence, than you’ll put your office of disability student services at the center of campus, as they did long ago at UC Berkeley.
Ubu-ableism is enhanced discrimination. It works like this: Ubu is in charge. He is (or she is) only concerned with greedy self-justification. Think of Ubu as Donald Trump wearing a military outfit.
Ubu thinks that the Americans with Disabilities Act is an unfunded mandate.
He thinks that the disabled are not “us” but those people.
He ardently believes they possess insufficient value in support of his quest for more goodies.
He is never shy about saying they should go away.
He sometimes runs academic conferences.
Sometimes he runs a chain of restaurants or a division of the Veterans Administration.
He advises on political campaigns.
He can be a pretend liberal like Ira Glass.
He’s certainly on the faculty of many universities.
His smile and his sneer are identical.
He calls for the end of social security.
Academic freedom is always under attack in the US and abroad. One might conceivably write a joke about the subject which would end, “Oh, so it’s an old story.” Years ago I heard the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges confound a moist and utterly cerebral undergraduate at Cornell University—the occasion, a “symposium” on the work of Vladimir Nabokov; the poor kid with his ball cap backwards—by saying, “what about Nabokov?” Borges had been the “keynote” speaker, the star, who was expected (or so one imagined) to close the proceedings in Ithaca with a tight, eloquent, “proof” on the Nabokovian Éminence grise. Instead he spoke for fifteen minutes about play as the core ingredient of imagination. He alluded to card tricks. And never once did he mention the author of “Lolita”. He stopped. That is, he said something about playfulness and stopped. He stopped like an old fashioned gramophone record. Borges’ needle had struck the paper label. There was wide silence. And it was long. There were perhaps 300 people in the auditorium. No one moved and no one spoke.
There were some in that room who must have thought Borges was having them on—a reflex at Cornell where the institution’s super-ego always imagines they’re not quite as good as the rest of the Ivy League. Borges must have been making fun of the assembly. (He was.) Or he may have been delivering an elementary sermon on inventiveness which true academics certainly didn’t feel they needed to hear. (He was.) Surely some of the faculty thought Borges was senescent. Ableism works that way. Perhaps the blind poet was out of his depth. But as I say, the silence of the crowd was substantial. I liked it. It was a Victorian silence, the absence of words was balanced on a tight line of epistemic bifurcation. One one side was the serious purpose inherent—Nabokov with a monumental Czarist “N”; on the other, a scurrilous Borgesian joke.
I was fresh back from a Fulbright year in Helsinki where I’d been studying the work of Pentti Saarikoski, A Finnish poet who many now consider to be the first truly post-modern writer. Saarikoski studied Greek and Latin, then Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Karl Marx—and perhaps not in that order but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the play that held his many influences together, and the principle was Heraclitus. Logos resists polarities. In any event I enjoyed the scholastic silence in that hot auditorium.
Then the kid said: “But what about Nabokov?” And Borges said: “Who is he?” “Well,” said the student, “you know, he wrote Lolita?” (By the mid-eighties American students everywhere had adopted that mannerism whereby all assertions must end with question marks—the aim, presumably, either to avoid being wrong, or to never offend anyone with a firm position—god knows.
“Who is Lolita?” Borges asked.
“Well you know,” said the student, “it’s the story of a teenaged girl maybe she’s 13, and she has an affair with a disreputable older man…?”
“Ah,” said Borges, “so it’s an old story.”
That was it for Nabokov. The show was over. A more perfect tribute to the master could not have been delivered.
Let’s be clear: freedom in the realm of inquiry is always a matter of playful risk. It can never be a matter of public relations.
I’m in mind of these things because this morning I read that Professor Alice Dreger, one of this nation’s pre-eminent scholars in the Medical Humanities has resigned her position at Northwestern University because the university has allowed its journal in medical ethics to become a vehicle for PR as opposed to free inquiry. You can read her story here.
It is an old story. Alice Dreger is principled and brave. I admire her.
I solemnly renounce Northwestern University’s medical school and its proprietary censorship.
I have to write fast. I’m theorizing extramundane fantasies. For instance: starlight takes shape of man, then decides this was a mistake, goes back to stars. True story if you’re Christian, I suppose.
Writing fast. People on Facebook still argue “who was better, the Beatles of Stones?” Aging Victorian Baby Boomers. Ugh. Who was better, Jefferson or Hamilton? Ben Franklin of course.
Dang. Need to read some Robert Browning. It’s been too long. Hey, Uncle Ez.
Jumping on wholly imagined trampoline for my friend Ralph who has a real one and isn’t feeling well.
when you open the book of life
if I hear my name
do I get to go look at it?
translated from the Finnish by SK
A walking song. Hey feet, hey hands, hey hair, hey collar bone, just be you, and trust me, the crows won’t eat us, not today.
Drinking coffee. Dogs look for rabbits through big solarium windows.
Summer was short
We went to retrace our steps
At the edge of a sweet field
A black river took summer away
We dropped our walking
Prayed for the trees still budding
–Niilo Rauhala, translated from the Finnish by SK
Immanence and impermanence–my brothers. I think hard about you. Two crickets outside. Water falls on my wrist bone when I wash a cup.
Sometimes I talk too much. At other times I say nothing, drink water from a glass, move books from one table to another.
“Life is available only in the present moment.”
—Thich Nhat Hahn
Reprise: walking song…
I threw my back out this afternoon. How many times have I done this? And how many times have I had to say it? My back IS my blindness; tension is deep in my muscles. Not seeing produces headaches, aches in the supraspinatus, brings on foul moods. Now I can barely tie my shoes.
When you have a disability, whether visible or invisible, sympathetic effects happen. One gets used to it. The “it” a ratcheting down of the day. How many afternoons did I spend as a child, crippled by tension headaches, hearing others play outside? The gone days are familiar to disabled folks.
In grade school, junior high, and high school I used to have to go to the nurse’s office to lie down. The surplus military blankets were so entirely familiar that I can smell them to this day.
Odor of backaches long remembered.
Sounds like Trump?
“The central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.”
—Jane Taylor on Ubu Roi
Alfred Jarry’s woodcut of Ubu Roi…
Watching the spectacle of Donald trump one is reminded of the opening of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell‘s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley‘s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
America is now fully a cartoon culture. We have cartoon families, cartoon immigrants, stick figure women, logos for cripples, cartoon news shows, and of course, the cartoon web.
In a cartoon society issues of oppression—the forces of oppression—no longer need to correct and punish deviants, for “these people” are fully written off like Goebbel’s schoolbook cartoony jews.
Everyone is a cartoon.
And because people know it, even the least literate, they suspect they are the victims of a joke.
This is Donald Trumps signature line. That America is a joke.
Building a wall to keep out the Mexican hordes is both a Fascist party line and a crowd pleaser. Just watch! They won’t be laughing at our wall!